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Challenge, The (1982)
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by Jack Sommersby

"Glenn and Frankenheimer Deliver"
4 stars

An action movie set in the Orient with equal doses of action and humor that deserved to be seen by a lot more during its theatrical release.

Scott Glenn gives an outstanding performance as Rick Murphy, a has-been Los Angeles boxer who inadvertently becomes involved in a decades-long feud over an ancient family sword in the John Frankenheimer-directed, Japan-set The Challenge. Superb in supporting roles as the bull-riding ex-convict in Urban Cowboy and manipulative track-and-field coach in Personal Best, Scott has been handed his first starring role, and he handles it like a champ. With an unflattering haircut and crummy wardrobe, Glenn is spectacularly deglamourized, and because he has the confidence that the camera will reach in and get the performance he can afford to be understated, which isn't always the case with actors playing action-hero roles. Rick never hit the big time, and nearing forty he knows he's bottomed out; he's been reduced to hiring himself out for easy money to boxing coaches to spar with their clients in the practice ring and then purposely lose to build up the younger fighters' confidence. After getting fired for knocking out a cocky fighter he refused to lay down for, he's offered a lucrative deal by a wheel-chaired Japanese man to help smuggle in a prized sword to Kyoto for five-hundred dollars a day for four to five days worth of work. Initially he refuses, but with slim employment options and eking out an existence in a sleazy downtown motel room, he accepts. Of course, things don't go as smoothly as planned: he's intercepted at the airport shortly after landing and abducted at gunpoint by the henchmen of the powerful tycoon Hideo (Atsuo Nakamura), who claims rightful ownership of the sword; the wheel-chaired man is also abducted, whose samurai-teaching father Yoshida (Toshiro Mifune), the sword's true owner, is Hideo's estranged brother. Rick manages to escape but is badly wounded in the process; he's taken in by Hideo, into his isolated compound in the woods where Rick trains under the master's tutelage to be a different kind of fighter. These are some of the best scenes. Rick can be cocky, too: he thinks his boxing moves are no match for the highly disciplined students, and is proved quite wrong. On a night out he's approached by Hideo's men to steal the sword Yoshida has reclaimed for a lucrative fifteen-thousand dollars, only it's not Rick's boxing ability that's being bought off, but his honor -- a new sense of honor acquired under Hideo. The "challenge" of the title has less to do with the brothers' feud but Rick's internal struggle -- to be part of a team for once or out for himself for more money than he's ever seen at one time.

Very entertaining and witty, the movie is a welcome return to form for Frankenheimer, whose last outing was the abysmal ecological monster flick Prophecy. It doesn't have the dazzling preciseness of the director's The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds and Black Sunday, but it doesn't dawdle, either. There's a finely staged foot chase in a crowded indoor fish market, and a superb grand finale at Hideo's high-tech office complex with the sparsely-armed Yoshida and Rick up against dozens of machinegun-wielding security guards. (Amusingly, a desk stapler, computer cords and even office partitions are put to inventive use.) And the character-oriented scenes are just as good, with Rick taking a seven-year-old samurai apprentice under his wing and gradually falling for Yoshida's college-educated daughter. The screenplay has been co-written by John Sayles, and it has the same sly humor he sprinkled 1980's horror movie Alligator with -- he has a gift for toying with genre expectations while staying within genre parameters. When Rick has shamed Yoshida's honor and must stay submerged neck-deep in the ground for five days without food or water or shade, even though he's hallucinating he's still afforded the line "Breakfast of champions" after woofing down a large bug; and a dinner scene where a drunk-on-Sh┼Źch┼ź Rick gets through a main course of live lobster and a dessert of fast-moving eels in a water glass plays out far better than expected. I wish the scenes had been more smoothly put together (the movie gets to be episodic at times, with the joints not particularly well-oiled), and perhaps Frankenheimer could've put more care into the visuals (Kyoto looks as drab as Rick's dilapidated urban neighborhood), but overall The Challenge is an impressive piece of work. Frankenheimer clearly believes in the material -- he doesn't impersonally stand outside it the way Sydney Pollack did with The Yakuza -- and because of that he's taken the effort to concentrate on the characters rather than just using them as prop pieces for the action. The legendary Mifune of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai is quietly forceful without overdoing the taciturnity, Nakamura exudes all the necessary menace behind an evilly insinuating smile that's oddly winning, and Glenn provides a wonderfully textured portrait of a nondescript Everyman surprised at finding untapped reserves of righteous heroism within himself. He's terrific, and so is The Challenge.

Sadly, it's not yet available on DVD. What, "The Gingerdead Man" can be found on disc but not this?

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originally posted: 04/15/13 08:52:22
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USA
  23-Jul-1982 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  31-Mar-1983




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